PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Alpine racing is brutally difficult and especially unforgiving. On any given race day, a dizzying array of variables may come into play: weather, light, snow, wind, wax and more.
Not to mention the weight of pressure, expectation and history.
It’s enough to make anyone upchuck. Even Mikaela Shiffrin. Who did exactly that Friday before the first of the two runs that make up the Olympic slalom.
“I guess everybody knows now, after puking before the first run,” Shiffrin would say after Friday’s racing had concluded and the scoreboard said she had taken fourth in her signature event, the slalom, “you know, that was me -- I don't know, it wasn’t even pressure, really, nerves. It's just -- I beat myself the wrong way today.”
Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter won gold, in a two-run combined time of 1:38.63; Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener took silver, five-hundredths behind; Katharina Gallhuber of Austria, with the day’s best second run, took bronze, 32-hundredths back.
Shiffrin finished eight-hundredths back of Gallhuber, just out of the medals.
Incredible? This is the Winter Olympics, when astonishing things can, and do, happen. Since winning Olympic gold in Sochi in 2014, Shiffrin had made 34 world championship and World Cup starts. She had finished off the podium in just four starts.
Hansdotter said she was just “having fun.” Think that’s why she won and Shiffrin didn’t?
“I was just standing in the start with a smile on my face,” Hansdotter said.
She also said of finishing ahead of Shiffrin, “This is amazing, because Mikaela is such a talented skier. She did so good yesterday also,” a reference to Thursday’s Olympic giant slalom. “It’s nice for me to be there for once because she has been beating me so many times.”
As for all of Shiffrin's nervous energy? Knowing that the eyes of so many people are on her?
“I think it’s more my own expectations and knowing, yeah, the magnitude of what I’m trying to do, for sure, but less about what everybody else wants to see,” Shiffrin said. “It’s more when I get into the start gate, how I feel about what I am trying to accomplish. Today I didn’t feel I like was, I don’t know, up for the challenge. I mean, I did, but when I was actually skiing my runs, that didn’t come out, and that’s a very big disappointment.”
At a pre-Games news conference, Shiffrin was asked if she might the Winter Games version of Michael Phelps. (She said, no.) Friday’s result ought to serve as a reminder how astonishing Phelps’ eight-for-eight in Beijing 10 years ago was, and is. In Beijing, all in, Phelps raced 17 times in nine days.
In Shiffrin’s words:
“After yesterday, it was such an emotional high, and I think almost feeling that kind of emotion it was like I let myself feel too much yesterday and then I had too much of, like, peaks and valleys, and it was too much of a peak yesterday and too much of a valley today. When you have two races in a row, it’s really important to keep that mental energy stable. I didn’t really do that. So, today, it was like all the tools that I have that make me feel equipped to handle whatever pressure I feel I didn’t have anymore.”
Given the buzz around Shiffrin, which only got bigger after that Thursday victory in the giant slalom, it perhaps seemed a foregone conclusion to far too many that she would win Friday, too.
After all, Shiffrin was not only the Sochi 2014 Olympic slalom winner but, as well, the 2013, 2015 and 2017 world championship gold medalist in the event. That’s four straight top slalom titles. No other skier, male or female, had ever done more than three.
Of Shiffrin’s 41 World Cup victories, 30 have come in slalom.
Olympic history geeks knew, however, that the odds were not in Shiffrin’s favor.
Only six alpine skiers have successfully defended an Olympic title, all legends of the sport: Italy’s Alberto Tomba, in giant slalom (1988, 1992); Norway’s Kjetil André Aamodt, super-G (2002, 2006); Italy’s Deborah Compagnoni, giant slalom (1994, 1998); Croatia’s Janica Kostelić, combined (2002, 2006); and Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch, combined (2010, 2014).
Vreni Schneider of Switzerland is the only alpine skier, female or male, with more than one Olympic gold medal in slalom, winning in 1988 and 1994.
Why is slalom so difficult? That's easy. Let’s say there are 60 or so gates. That means 60 separate chances to screw up. As Hansdotter would say, “It’s ski racing. It’s slalom. Anything can happen.”
In that first run, Shiffrin went — for her — wide on a number of gates up top, giving up time. When she crossed, she found herself 48-hundredths back of Holdener, the first-run leader. “I skied it really, really conservative,” Shiffrin said later. “That’s not something that deserves to win a medal.”
Hansdotter took third in the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 world championships, second in 2015, behind Shiffrin. Holdener took silver, in 2017, again behind Shiffrin.
By the second of the timed intervals in run two, Shiffrin seemed to have it going — she was 77-hundredths into the green. But as the run went on, the margin dwindled, down to just a tenth ahead at the third. At the line, she was that eight-hundredths back.
“Second run,” Shiffrin said, “I didn’t puke. I was feeling much more in control of myself. But after how I skied in the first run,” and here she sighed deeply, “I just wasn’t there.”
She also said, “This is going to sound so arrogant: I know I’m the best slalom skier in the world. Because I’ve done that skiing so much. And what I did in that race today is not anywhere close to that. Not even anywhere close to what I was doing with my freeskiing. But the race is when it counts. So.”
And: “Every single loss I’ve had I remember so thoroughly it’s like a piece of my heart breaks off and I can never get it back. Yeah, today is no different than that. Someday I’ll be able to understand that this part of life and I’m just learning and I’m 22 years old and right now I feel like, ugh. It is what it is.”